Nuclear Nightmares: Damned Lies about the World’s “Safest” Energy Source

Implausible as it may seem, as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has grown ever more cataclysmic, nuclear energy advocates have come out of the woodwork to tout the virtues of nuclear as a “safe” form of energy. Safe? Are you kidding me? Last night, rain containing measurable levels of radiation from Fukushima Daiichi fell on the [...]

Implausible as it may seem, as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has grown ever more cataclysmic, nuclear energy advocates have come out of the woodwork to tout the virtues of nuclear as a “safe” form of energy. Safe? Are you kidding me? Last night, rain containing measurable levels of radiation from Fukushima Daiichi fell on the east coast of North America. We will surely be on the wrong side of the looking glass when we start believing that an energy source which has contaminated huge swaths of the globe with hazardous waste is “safe.” If nuclear energy is safe, then Hitler was a charter member of the Anti-Defamation League.

Still, the pro-nuke crowd argues that, compared to fossil fuels, nuclear is an emissions free energy source that merits a much cleaner, greener image than its dirty cousin, coal. That’s sort of like saying, nuclear energy is safe because it isn’t as lethal as cyanide tablets. First of all, nuclear vs. coal is a false dichotomy; that is, if we deplore the hazards of coal, then our only option must be a wholesale embrace of nuclear. Baloney. There are lots of other, better energy-production options (such as, solar, wind, geothermal, heliostat, fusion, etc.) that, if we only invest in them sufficiently, will light the way to a safer, more secure, renewable energy future.

Certainly, it is true that coal is a dreadfully polluting form of energy and, if the human race has a modicum of sense, we will need to stop mining and burning so much of it. However, the idea that we can only rescue ourselves from a dirty, anachronistic fossil fuel by heating our homes with a WWII-era bomb-making technology makes about as much sense as using a gun to cure a migraine.

Also, I think it is high time to put the nuclear energy industry’s safety record on trial. Since 1951, about 450 nuclear power plants have come online all over the world. Of that total, three facilities have experienced major and “improbable” failures that have, nonetheless, threatened the health and well-being of millions of people. Thus, as things currently stand, there is approximately a 1/150 chance that any particular nuclear power plant will have a major accident. In case you were wondering, those are not very long odds. Just imagine having a major accident every 150th time that you climb behind the wheel of your car. What’s even more scary is that, as the years go by, aging nuke plants will become more technologically out-of-date and more susceptible to accidents.

No matter how shrill the pro-nuke rhetoric becomes, the facts won’t change. Disasters are a routine part nuclear power production. The more nuclear power plants that we construct, the more disasters that we will inevitably witness.

Enough is enough.

It takes genius to split atoms, but it takes an even higher order of genius to split atoms safely. Unfortunately, we aren’t that smart yet. Hopefully, we’ll wise up before it’s too late.

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Filed Under: The Lightning StrikeTimothy McGettiganUncategorized

About the Author: Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.

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  1. Carrie says:

    This article posts some very interesting points. There is much to learn from what has been happening recently involving nuclear energy consequence, including Japan. I recently saw program in which a panel of experts discussed what we should have learned from the recently nuclear crisis, and what each country can do to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

    Here’s the link:

    – Carrie

  2. Alex says:

    So you’ve said that renewables will work despite huge investment and them currently not working economically. So when do we stop throwing money at them? When are they going to magically start becoming economic?

    Please don’t get me wrong. I love hydroelectricity. It’s the one renewable power I can think of that truly works. It was a tragedy when it killed around 120,000 people in the 70s when a damn failed. That’s thousands more than nuclear power ever hurt. Of course logic wont change your view will it? Your pumped up on fear. You’d best throw out that smoke detector in your house quickly, do you know that has Americium in it? That’s nuclear waste.

    China wont abandon nuclear power and if the west doesn’t get on board the bus to the future, we’ll be the ones making cheap things for them. It’s totally tragic that such ignorance get’s shovelled around. When you learn one day that we’re all naturally radioactive anyway, and always have been, I bet you’ll poop yourself.

  3. Timothy McGettigan says:


    I think it’s safe to say that your ignorance shovel is a lot bigger than mine. People are “naturally radioactive”? By this, do you mean to suggest that people are similar to uranium ore, or The Hulk? Either way, I think you’re somewhat off base.

    Indeed, there are many sources of natural radiation in the biosphere. Further, due to the omnipresence of low-level radiation in the atmosphere, cells have evolved a DNA repair process that does a good job of minimizing the destructive effects of natural radiation. Unfortunately, when people are exposed to much higher ambient levels of atmospheric radiation–such as in the aftermath of TMI, Chernobyl and Fukishima Daiichi–the body’s DNA repair process simply can’t keep up with all of the massive DNA damage inflicted by the radiation. Thus, the nuclear power industry’s penchant for generating hazardous fallout (i.e., major nuclear catastrophes tend to take place every 10-12 years, whereas minor accidents occur on an annual basis) tends to generate lots of negative health impacts among very many people.

    In short, radiation is not a basic food group and nuclear energy production is intrinsically unsafe.

    The bus to the future runs on green, renewable energy.



  4. Clarence says:

    There are 450 nuclear power plants in the world.

    Of the 450, three have experienced a major failure in some way or another.

    Therefore, there is a 3/450 chance (1/150) of a nuclear accident occurring.


  5. Caleb says:

    You’re not very good at math, are you?

  6. Alex says:


    How you can start by suggesting people aren’t radioactive and then go on to acknowledge radiation exists in the biosphere kind of surprises me. Isn’t that just contradicting yourself? Both carbon and potassium occur radioactively in nature, which is why you get a tiny boost of radioactivity by eating a banana (rich in potassium).

    If we weren’t radioactive, carbon dating wouldn’t work. You are of course right to point out that low levels of radioactivity are harmless and that we have evolved to cope with it.

    Where you are completely wrong is in stating that Three Mile Island or Fukushima have produced radiation levels exceeding peak natural background levels that occur in some parts of the world (which are settled by people).

    Neither of these incidents have exposed ordinary members of the public to radiation levels higher than that which occur naturally in places like Ramsar, Mazandaran in Iran (can be around 260mSv annual). Incidentally Ramsar is something of a spectacle to scientists studying radiation as the population there seems to demonstrate increased radio-resistance. They suffer no unusual rates of disease or birth defects.

    One of the notable things about radiation is just how easy it is to measure and to assess intensity. It’s not like trying to measure carcinogens from car exhausts or industry. There’s great data available. You can even look at internet connected counters in Japan!

    I do believe that Chernobyl may well have exceeded even peak natural levels and if you are against old style Soviet RBMK reactors with very little safety in their design (of which around 11 still operate) then I might be inclined to support you (See I’m quite reasonable!).

    If you are in any doubt over my assertions with regard to Ramsar and natural radiation, a quick search for “Ramsar, Mazandaran” should put you on the right track.

    Climate change matters too much to have people using fear and ignorance to scare people about the one technology that may well save us. More and more environmentalists (George Monbiot, Stewart Brand) are coming round to this idea too.

    FYI, Did you know that Coal Power stations expose local residents to 3 times more radiation than Nuclear ones? It’s the fly ash that concentrates naturally occurring uranium and thorium. Look up XKCD radiation chart and follow the sources to verify.

  7. HI Alex

    You say, “I love hydroelectricity. It’s the one renewable power I can think of that truly works. It was a tragedy when it killed around 120,000 people in the 70s when a damn failed.”You are right to point out the dangers of big mega-projects like that. For me however those projects are no different than nuclear reactors. They are big projects controlled by big corporations centralizing power generation and control over energy into the hands of the few so that a $$ intravenous can be inserted and maintained. In other words, not apples and oranges, but just apples. There are other alternatives, however. Smaller generation packages, efficient photocells, geothermal, small scale wind turbines all leading to every home a generator! Its been a while since I read anything but I know efficiency is an issue. Still, overcoming the efficiency issues of solar is probably just a few billion research dollars away. If governments and corporations would stop chocking development I have a feeling we’d be able to do away with dangerous mega-projects pretty easily.

    As for your information on background radiation levels in Ramsar, that’s quite cool and really highlights just how sophisticated and adaptable the human body is. Having said that, however, we have to understand that the people of Ramsar have adapted over time, and the question is how much time did they need? A decade? A century? More? The people in Ramsar have adapted to high levels of radiation, the rest of the world hasn’t. My question to you is, if I moved to Ramsar and sat in the sea of higher radiation, would my body demonstrate “radio-resistance” or would I experience the deleterious effects of cell destruction?


  8. Brendan says:

    I agree with Alex on this topic. Radiation naturally occurs everywhere in nature. In the atmosphere, soil, water, and our own bodies. According to the EPA, radiation levels caused by nuclear bombs and nuclear power plant emissions account for less than 1% of total radiation dosage.

    While I believe nuclear power to be a clean, efficient and necessary energy source now and into the future, perhaps the location of the plants should be reviewed. We have recently seen the consequences of building a nuclear plant on the coast line of the pacific ring, riddled with volcano, earthquakes and tsunami.

    EPA monitoring continues to confirm that no radiation levels of concern have reached the united states. The latest EPA news release (4 may 2011) confirms that seafood is safe and uneffected by radiation contamination. A previous news release in april crushed alarmist reports that drinking water in the U.S. may be effected.

  9. Well I guess the question for me isn’t about general background radiation you know, but the high levels of radiation that people are exposed to when nuclear plants break down. To say that nuclear power plant emissions amount to less than 1% of total radiation dosage is meaningless and appears like an attempt to divert consciousness on this topic. In this context since the concern is with abnormal dosage caused by “accidents” and failures. Is all the damage that is being done to the Japanese country side, all the deformities and deaths that can be expected as a result of this, all the human agony and suffering that will likely be the result really a cost that we are prepared to pay.

    You can just google chernobyl deformities or read articles like this to get a better sense of what we might be talking about here.

    I find it kinda funny that you are trying to “assuage” alarmist reports by pointing out the U.S. hasn’t been effected. The question is less about that and more about the impact on Japan. You want to talk about Nuclear power, why don’t you address the impact that these sorts of disasters have on the generations of people affected by them. If all you can do is cite “belief” and point to global background radiation, you are not really contributing to this debate in any meaningful fashion.

  10. Timothy McGettigan says:

    Unsafe at Any Dose

  11. Alex says:

    Hi Michael,

    Sorry for not replying earlier, in my quick scan through of the page for replies I’d neglected to see the Next and Previous buttons at the top of the comments section.

    I like local generation, but while we are so incapable of efficient mass energy storage and while industry and commerce require huge amounts of power (this is overlooked with surprising frequency), local generation will never be an alternative to a grid. if it can compliment the grid in a meaningful way I will be impressed, but I’ve yet to see how it can be anything other than complimentary.

    When talking about radio-resistance and to what degree people in Ramsar have adapted, I can say you raise a great point and I cannot give you a conclusive answer to that. I can say anecdotally that Chernobyl is rich in healthy wildlife despite it’s radioactivity and I can say I *believe* that we all have the capability to be radio-resistant, but I don’t have data or studies that prove or disprove it for the wider population, except….

    Taiwan had a radioactivity accident in 1983 (google “cobalt-60 Taiwan”) where 180 apartment buildings were constructed using steel that had accidentally been contaminated with a highly radioactive Cobalt-60 source. The LNT model (the one which predicted around 9,000 deaths from Chernobyl) tells us that this contamination would produce a significant increase in cancer. The truth was far more bizarre and to the scientifically minded, far more exciting. The increased exposure of these people who lived in the building actually significantly reduced their cancer risk! Please don’t take my word on this, look it up and research it. It’s something you need to see for yourself.

    As no one knew about the accident until much later, it provides one of the closest things to a double blind study that radiation science has ever had. When we take into account that it appears that the psychological effects of believing yourself to be irradiated can be pretty serious, the importance of this scenario over others becomes especially clear.

    Science is all about observation, hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion.

    Radiation science suffers from the ethical problem that it’s not ethical to radiate people to prove or disprove the risks of radiation in large controlled studies. However, if we ignore evidence that contradicts out beliefs, whichever way, we stop embracing science. I can assure you that ignorance is not in fact bliss. Our world could be at stake and ignorance could ultimately end up with us going the way of the dinosaurs. We have to know what the right thing to do is, ignorance will not help us.

    Now, what about all the journalism and articles that state how bad radiation is? Well you can’t just ignore them out of hand. Neither is it right (as many are guilty of) of selectively reading stuff about how bad it is and choosing to ignore the vast works conducted by mainstream radiation science. People have dedicated their lives to researching radiation and what do millions of people do? They ignore these respected, intelligent, well educated scientists in favour of sensational, scary stories that scrimp by on unproven anecdotal reports.

    Prof Wade Allison, Prof Antone Brooks, Dr Mike Repacholi, Prof Ron Chesser & Dr Andrew Karam are just a few scientists who are part of the mainstream radiological community. Look up their research, see what they have to say.

    Timothy McGettigan:
    I can find you links that say radiation is unsafe at any dose too. The information they contain directly contradicts studies of flight crew who are exposed to much higher doses of radiation than the rest of us (higher than the limit allowed to nuclear workers) as they fly at 35,000 feet. The things these people are saying have been solidly and scientifically proved false.

    To my knowledge, getting on an air plane for a long flight is the most accessible and effective way for anyone to irradiate themselves. I’ve even done it myself! :P It’s far more cost effective than getting repeated chest X-Rays. Though if you have access to a CT scanner that might be a possible exception.

    The best scientific work that says radiation is unsafe at any dose is the work done by Chris Busby. I say the best, but it’s not particularly good. He does have some evidence that supports him and equally he has evidence that also contradicts him. He’s very good at theories (some are actually quite interesting), and very bad at proving them to be correct.

    I say the best because he did at least have a theory that was able to explain things like flight crews (he theorised that ingested radiation played a much more potent role). However his theories start breaking down when you look at data around incidents where radioactivity was consumed.

  12. Timothy McGettigan says:


    You’re talking to the wrong guy. Go and convince all the people around TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi that nuclear energy is the world’s safest energy source. When they believe you, I will too.

  13. Alex says:


    The main people I’m trying to address are those who are open minded, genuinely willing to listen and learn about the issue from all angles. I see very little point in trying to argue with anyone who has already solidly made their mind up, I see them as a lost cause.

    You shouldn’t believe me anyway Timothy, you should take what I’ve said as a starting point to learn more. Belief is about religion, science is about investigation and proof.

    If you just believed me without looking into it, I would have spectacularly failed in my attempt to make you think.

    It’s funny you should mention people around Chernobyl, TMI and Fukushima. You mustn’t be aware of people moving into the exclusion zone to live against government advice. Some are a bit scared but get on and some aren’t scared or claim not to be: (Around 2:05 minutes in a woman talks to the RT news crew about why she returned to live inside the exclusion zone).

    It’s not just Chernobyl. I came across someone correcting unfounded radio-phobic remarks in Wikipedia and he lives in the Fukushima prefecture.

    In any case, you seem to be suggesting that people who live near areas where nuclear incidents have occurred are the best judges of radiation risk. Well that’s just like saying that people who live near Cape Canaveral are the best judges of the usefulness of space exploration.

    Sure, they are the people who may be most anxious about it, but are you really saying that truth comes from anxiety?

  14. Timothy McGettigan says:


    Truth derives from facts. You can pontificate all you like about the virtues of radioactivity, but you won’t learn the truth until you experience the devastation firsthand.

  15. Alex says:


    I haven’t said radioactivity is virtuous, if your argument is so flimsy that you feel the need to put words in my mouth I’m disappointed. I had hoped that we could discuss the matter fairly and maturely.

  16. Dan says:

    Alex; Timothy: Pleased to meet you. I’m an inventor and has-been Patent Attorney. The theory of Tort law may shed some light here. Out of 1500 students in my class I was the only one to accept the masochistic burden to add Wiliston on Torts to my reading burden. There is a reason for tort law. It creates an ever increasing burden to safely industrialize. That’s my summation of what I am considering to be one of the most important points made by Mr Williston 100 yrs ago.

    continuing in my summation: There are forseeable accidents and unforseeable ones. the cliche’, “Playing with fire” is helpful to consider. It is dangerous to play with fire for obvious reasons. It is also beneficial to play with fire for creative reasons; you learn how to refine metals etc. But when exposing many people and assets to an experiment with fire, it is both the forseeable and the unforseeable that should be considered before allowing such an experiment.

    The Company GE designed the first plant that went down in Japan. The other plants were designed by othes but nodoubt taking cues from the GE design. Under the old common law GE is the “SINE QUA NON” for the accident happening and would be held responsible in olden days and in fact is responsible, in fact, for the accident. Legal fictions will intervene to protect GE it’s too big to fail and besides I own stock in it. Do you think GE would have promoted the nuclear plant if they knew they would be held responsible for unforseeable accidents? I think not Hell I’d be suing them now. In fact isn’t it a legitimate duty for them to acknowledge fault, if we are to teach our progeny to be responsible?

  17. Tim McGettigan says:


    I agree. If culprits are not held accountable, then there is no disincentive for engaging in negligent or criminal activity.

  18. jerpo says:

    It is important to note that although OLD reactors can be dangerous, NEW reactors have far more advanced technology, making them safer, more efficient, and built to withstand natural disasters better. Perhaps governments should regulate how strong they are built..

    Also important to note that if we immediately shut down our nuclear plants, the only other options would be burning fossil fuels.

    Therefore, I believe we should phase out old plants, and build new ones, which although capital intensive in the short term, are a great investment in our future! Clean energy, and yes… very safe. The 1/150 argument is pure bias.

  19. Timothy McGettigan says:

    It’s funny, your distinction between old vs. new nuke plants is reminiscent of the advertising for updated versions of Microsoft operating systems. Invariably, Microsoft’s selling point is that their new OS will correct all of the flaws that were intrinsic to previous versions. Yeah, right.

    No matter what version you are attempting to sell, nuclear energy is dirty, dangerous and obscenely expensive. To their credit, the German government–not a bunch of knee-jerk radicals–arrived at that very conclusion. The Germans should be commended for seeing the light: the only safe way to operate nuke plants is to shut them down. I suspect the Japanese will soon embrace the same wisdom.

  20. Zech says:

    Tim, your not entirely wrong there. However, he does have a point that there is newer technology that does better protect from melt downs and natural disasters. Does this mean that we should all put a reactor in our basements? No, but it does mean that we shouldn’t completely shut our minds to the possibility that with proper safeguards nuclear power can be a very good interim technology.

    Now, that is something that I think everyone is ignoring as well. We are looking at Nuclear power as the next fossil fuel, and it is by no means that. For the reasons that everyone here is stating Nuclear power cannot completely replace fossil fuels, but it can decrease our dependency long enough to make a switch to an energy source that is not so dangerous and quite a bit more healthy for the environment. Yes, if we invest in Nuclear energy now, it’ll take a few generations before we can afford to switch out of it, but it’ll also take a few generations for us to completely switch away from fossil fuels, so the timeline certainly can line up. Yes, there are risks, but there are risks for everything we do.

  21. Timothy McGettigan says:

    Regardless of the reactor design, fission creates all sorts of messes that we can’t clean up. Fallout from Fukushima Daiichi is going to create nightmares for lots of people for a very long time. Less grandiose–but no less problematic–is all of the waste that fission produces. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my legacy to future generations to be vast pools of unmanageable radioactive waste.

    As for the argument that nuclear fission is a “bridge” technology that we can rely on until something better comes along; it’s a myth propagated by nuke advocates. We’ve got better technologies already. The only reason to build nuke plants is because reckless profiteers want to make mountains of cash on an intrinsically dangerous technology.

    Nuclear fission is nothing but bad news. The Germans have figured it out and I am pleased to report that the US is considering a similar unilateral phase out of nuclear energy.

  22. Dan says:

    Damned thing about technology, it’s so sexy that its almost impossible to keep ones hands off of it. Whether dangerous or not we are drawn to the “intruiging and useful” whether simple or complex. On some kind of balance though, one should not allow the community scientist to “expose to danger” the maximum number of people in his or her community. Especially when compared to the scientist that wants to expose the fewer number to danger. Also to be considered is the number of people in the community will know how to apply the brakes to the contraption when it becomes “run-away” unruly.

  23. Good point. Technology always has unforeseen consequences. The difficulty with nuclear reactors is that, when they spin out of control, we have no means of containing the destruction that they wreak.

  24. Jay says:

    Please, check this link out before you make such ridiculous claims about the dangers of nuclear energy.

  25. Cynthia Thompson says:

    1/150 is still way too high of a risk. One nuclear disaster can wipe out an entire continent.

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